Saturday, 18 August 2012

Benighted

After listening to one of the fascinating 1951 Down Place podcasts about Hammer Films, I managed to borrow J B Priestley's book from the library. This is the original source for the excellent 1932 James Whale film The old dark house and the frankly awful reimagining from Hammer, released in 1963. The podcast confirmed that it wasn't worth my rewatching the Hammer version and that, basically, it was much more of a William Castle film than a Hammer Film.

The book itself (called Benighted) is a pleasantly old fashioned story (first published in 1927) that defines the mood and the plot of the earlier film very well. There are no ghosts or supernatural monsters here, or any implication that the book is that kind of story. The plot is fairly simple: a group of travellers is forced to seek refuge from a severe storm and flooding in an isolated country house, which turns out to be owned and populated by an eccentric family, some of whose members have "mental health problems". The characters muse about life and love and there are some interesting insights into the mores of the UK in the 1920s. The James Whale film has a nice, quirky humour (as you might expect from Whale) and excellent performances by (amongst others) Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger and Boris Karloff. My memory of the Hammer film is that it doesn't touch the original in atmosphere, that Castle takes many more liberties than Whale did with the novel, and that Castle's attempts at humour and thrills both fall flat. As often, the original film is by far the best. Definitely an exception to the rule that Hammer remakes are as good as, if not better than, the Universal versions of the 1930s and 40s.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Sex and violence

I'm a huge fan of the HBO TV series Rome, for its superb look, brilliant performances and compelling plots. I was thoroughly immersed in both series and was sadly disappointed when sheer expense brought an end to it after 22 episodes. Purely because of this and a few favourable reviews, I bought the Blu-ray of the initial series Spartacus: blood and sand. I don't subscribe to any cable or satellite channels, so hadn't seen it until I got the discs.

Rome it ain't. Yes, the plot becomes compelling after a while, but the scripts and performances are just not in the same league. Then there's the violence. Rome has some extremely violent scenes, but these almost always seem to grow out of the plot, and rarely seem gratuitous. The violence in Spartacus: BAS seems to be there almost for its own sake, and I'm disturbed that some people seem to like it for that reason alone.

I used to be accused of being weird or sick for being a fan of horror films. To clarify, it's the ghost stories like The haunting, old Hammer horror films and their predecessors that I like - adult fairy tales that try to create an atmosphere, that often rely on scaring audiences rather than revolting them, and that (despite the criticism they got on initial release) are nowhere near as violent or gory as modern horrors. I've stopped watching horror films in general, certainly if they are anything like The descent - one that got rave reviews but, to me, showed just how it shouldn't be done: particularly disappointing since the same director's Dog soldiers wasn't bad.

I digress. I do feel there's a place for violence in all genres and yes, the violence in Spartacus is sometimes so over-the-top that it loses its impact. Maybe we're meant to laugh at it but I can't, just as I saw nothing funny - or remotely watchable - in the OTT The evil dead. (Sam Raimi went on to make some much better films like The gift, but I'm digressing again.) I just don't like to watch violence for its own sake. At the risk of sounding like Mary Whitehouse, I can't help wondering if extreme violence in the media is really so harmless, as it clearly has the potential to desensitise audiences to that kind of material and might be difficult to handle for those with a tenuous grip on reality. It's ironic that the sex in Spartacus is always less explicit than the violence. I would like to see this turned the other way round! I'm certainly not in favour of censorship - just a little more taste and restraint.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Underappreciated masterpiece

I recently watched Brian DePalma's Carrie again and dug out an old review I wrote of it way back in the 80s. I thought that I might have been looking back with rose-tinted specs but, to my pleasant surprise, I was as impressed with the film as I ever was. It's certainly "of its time", as the fashions and attitudes take us firmly back to 1976 - but that doesn't seem to hurt it at all and, in my opinion, it holds up vastly better than most other films of the same vintage, and better than any of DePalma's other films.

I've left the following (naive as it is) largely unchanged from when I first wrote it in 1987. In passing I dared to criticise the sacred Stanley Kubrick, and my opinion of his Stephen King adaptation is unchanged. Warning: it does contain spoilers.



They’re all gonna laugh at you

Brian DePalma’s Carrie examined by John H

An ugly duckling schoolgirl assailed by the jeers of her schoolmates and the cruel repression of her religious maniac mother emerges at her senior prom as a beautiful young woman. At the moment of her greatest joy, she is publicly humiliated and unleashes her telekinetic powers with devastating results for all.

Such a storyline might seem to be filled with horror genre clichés: however, Stephen King’s first published book soon proved to be a bestseller, and as the first of his works to be filmed, it also lays claim to being the most successful.

The origin of the film was around 1975, when director Brian DePalma, having read and liked the book, rang his agent to find out who owned the film rights. On being told that it had not yet been sold, he registered his interest, but nothing happened until six months or so later, when he sold his film Phantom of the Paradise to 20th Century Fox. He then found out that Carrie had been bought up for producer Paul Monash, who had a multi-film deal with Fox. Monash and DePalma met and DePalma talked about his ideas for the film. However, it transpired that Monash was initially not keen on having DePalma to direct, and had to be persuaded by the studio that he would be right for the film.

The casting of Sissy Spacek in the lead seems to have been largely due to luck. At the beginning, DePalma had a different actress in mind for the role of Carrie. Spacek auditioned for the role of Chris Hargensen (the “bitch” of the film) and had expected that this was the part she would get. However, she was asked to read for Carrie, and so she “got all frumpy” and went into the audition with Vaseline in her hair. DePalma reportedly never saw her as a “sex-pot”, and because of the Vaseline, came to see her more and more as Carrie: her eventual reading of Carrie’s part made everyone else look silly and so there was effectively no contest.

The music for Brian DePalma’s previous film, Obsession, had been written by Bernard Herrmann –acclaimed for his Alfred Hitchcock scores. However, Herrmann had recently died and in Pino Donaggio – who had already scored Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – DePalma found someone who would follow in his footsteps. In his characteristic use of strings and percussion, Donaggio strongly resembled Herrmann. In Carrie, his score went even deeper than most of Herrmann’s, greatly enhancing the tension, pathos and even the humour of the film.

Monash and DePalma wisely chose not to jettison any of the book’s main elements. The only major changes were to the character of Margaret White – as detailed later – and the scale of Carrie’s final destructiveness: in the book she razes the whole town, in the film merely the school. This shows a sense of proportion even in such an extravagant film, and helps retain our vital sympathy for Carrie herself. One wishes that Stanley Kubrick had stopped to look at the strengths of Carrie as he planned his version of The Shining, instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The casting of Carrie is frequently inspired, and never less than apt. Particularly outstanding are Sissy Spacek, who as Carrie is in turn pathetic, beautiful and ugly in a way you that few other actresses could be; John Travolta, unknown at the time of his casting, and whose coarsely physical Billy Nolan could have stepped straight out of the pages of the book; and – of course – Piper Laurie. The film can be said to be “over the top” and, indeed, this is the point – the characters have the same larger-than-life quality as King’s writing. DePalma shares King’s ability to leave the viewer gaping in amazement without quite tipping over into the comical. This feeling has free rein in Piper Laurie’s histrionic portrayal of Carrie’s mother, a role she personally claimed to have played as over the top as possible, mistakenly expecting DePalma to check her “overacting”. In the context of a King story, this works beautifully.

Two examples of the way the film “out-Kings” King himself are the transformation of the Margaret White of the book from a fat, middle-aged, ugly harridan into a young and physically attractive zealot, removing the cliché from the character; and Mrs White’s “crucifixion” when she utters 23 martyred death groans, that stop just before they become ludicrous. This scene contrasts with her relatively unspectacular death by heart failure in the book, and one feels that this is the way Stephen King would have written it if the book had undergone further revisions.

From its beginning and carries taunting by her schoolmates, through the preparations for the eagerly awaited senior prom, the film hardly puts a foot wrong. The opening scenes at the prom itself are sheer magic, the glamour of the occasion as seen from Carrie’s viewpoint beautifully captured. DePalma’s direction and Spacek’s performance are brilliantly underpinned by Donaggio’s music: Carrie’s own theme, used in variations throughout the film, forms the basis of a song I never thought that someone like you could love someone like me which is genuinely moving rather than merely sentimental. An inspired touch of the director has the camera orbit around Carrie and Tommy as they are dancing, so that the audience is literally “in a whirl” with her.

The following prize-giving scene, which leads up to the main climax of the film – Carrie’s drenching with a bucket of pig’s blood – is perhaps too long. The maximum tension is milked from the scene using slow motion, but it seems that audience attention wanders at this point. Several viewers have voiced confusion here, believing that Sue Snell was involved with the plot against Carrie, although repeat viewings of this section clearly show her trying to warn Miss Collins of the disaster to come. The use of split screen in the following scenes of destruction also tends to distract from what is going on. DePalma himself was reportedly unsure whether he made all the right choices in this section, although he felt it essential to use split screen because the only alternative would be repetitive cutting away from Carrie to the destruction.

After destroying the school, Carrie walks home in a semi-trance. On the way she encounters Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan, the culprits in her humiliation – who now try to run her down. As their car races towards her, we see a subliminal flash of close-up of her eye. In a stunning piece of effects work, the car flips upside down just feet away from her, and bursts into flame. Carrie returns home to find the house decorated with hundreds of candles – turned into a huge altar by her mother, who has decided she must kill her. In another variation on his recurring theme, Donaggio’s music creates an ecclesiastical, almost funereal atmosphere. From here, Carrie’s final tragedy is inevitable.

The film’s shock ending – Sue Snell dreams of putting flowers on Carrie’s grave, and Carrie’s bloodstained hand shoots out of the earth with monstrous suddenness to grab her wrist – is very well judged, and even after films such as The Exorcist, has the power to make cinema audiences scream. However, seen logically, it undermines the impact of the whole film prior to this. Carrie is not a monster – the film has been at great pains to show us that she is a warm human being who just wants to live a normal life like any other young girl. The death and destruction happen because she is driven to breaking point: like the book, the film is a true tragedy. Similarly, the publishers of the book, New English Library, seemed at one point to have no idea of what it was really about. Some paperback editions bore the slogan “trust her and she will lead you into a nightmare”: the suggestion that Carrie was untrustworthy missed the point entirely.

The real horror of the film, and its lasting resonance, is in the fact that Carrie’s horrible mother was right when she said “they’re all gonna laugh at you”. After all she has had to endure, including death itself, there is no reassurance for Carrie. The implication is that churchmen preaching Fire and Brimstone may be right after all, another facet of the pessimism which seems to run through most of King’s work.

Many of DePalma’s genre films since have shown an equally impressive cinematic style, works such as Dressed to Kill, Blowout and Body Double being almost as cinematic and captivating as Carrie. Only in the The Fury did his direction seemed incoherent and pointlessly bloodthirsty – yet this was probably due to an over hectic plot and a script which did not quite hang together. He later made more non genre films, but evidence suggests that horror, fantasy and suspense are his real areas of talent, and we can only hope he returns to them.